The Brown Girl and Her Languages

India has twenty-nine states and seven union territories with 461 languages with fourteen already extinct.    From the north to the south, there is no single language spoken by everyone, but of the 461, there are twenty-two major languages. The Constitution of India recognizes these twenty-two languages as the Scheduled Languages.  Check out the link to see the interactive version of this map to see the locations and numbers for speakers of these languages.

One of my goals for this trip was to gain conversational proficiency in Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil and Urdu. I strategically selected these languages for the prior exposure I had plus potential future use. I was born in the state of Kerala where we speak Malayalam.  The state to the east of Kerala is Tamil Nadu where Tamil is spoken.  Hindi and Urdu are spoken primarily in the northern states but anyone who has seen a Bollywood film or listened to the music has probably heard both Hindi and Urdu since they are similar when spoken. I have seen films in all four languages plus listen to music in all four.  Hindi and Urdu are similar and so are Malayalam and Tamil.  As I study these  four languages, I am adding to my existing knowledge rather than learning them all from scratch.

Of course, I am not doing this all by myself.  I have separate tutors for Malayalam and Hindi with books for all four languages, a ton of flashcards, and volunteers who will have conversations in all four languages. Fortunately, my tutors are very patient with me as I learn.  Often, I find myself wanting to answer in other languages.  For example, my Hindi teacher will ask me a question in Hindi but I want to answer in Spanish. During my Malayalam sessions, I want to answer everything in Hindi.  Unfortunately, this has happened to me before.  Years ago, when I was stationed in Germany, I took a fast track German class with other soldiers to learn enough to get around off post. When folks spoke to me in German, the Spanish I learned in high school would leap out of my mouth. I could never explain it. We all get a good laugh out of this quirk of mine but I am grateful that I have been exposed to so many languages.  When I return to the states at the end of May, I will be able to have conversations in five languages.  If you speak any of these languages, let’s chat. Until next time.


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